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[ConfTech #1 discussion summary] Diplomacy goes virtual as Coronavirus goes viral: How to organise and run online meetings

18 March 2020
While virtual meetings may be nothing new, the recent outbreak of COVID-19, has brought online conferencing into the spotlight. Building on more than 20 years of experience in the organisation of webinars, online meetings, and e-learning, Diplo’s Conference Tech Lab organised a web discussion entitled ‘Diplomacy goes virtual as coronavirus goes viral: How to organise and run online meetings’. Diplo’s experts Ms Marilia Maciel (Digital Policy Senior Researcher), Dr Jovan Kurbalija Executive Director), and Mr Arvin Kamberi (Multimedia Co-ordinator) shared know-how and tips on how to organise a successful online event with over 100 participants from 52 countries.

Necessity drives innovation

Kurbalija opened the discussion by drawing a parallel between the current situation and the early beginnings of online conferencing at Diplo in 1998. Kurbalija pointed out that necessity as the driver of innovation is the common denominator in both situations. Like in the 1990s, when online tools helped overcome the geographical remoteness of countries like Malta, necessity can once again push forward the effectiveness of diplomatic and other meetings. Reflecting on innovation, Kurbalija observed that digital advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) that can be used to summarise and compare discussions, generate reports, and analyse transcripts from meetings have a stake in the future of meetings Kurbalija also touched upon the confusion surrounding terminology. A variety of terms (online conferencing, virtual meetings, webinars, etc.) are used to describe gatherings in an online setting. In order to overcome this confusion, the right approach would be to grasp what these different types of meetings are all about: small meetings on Skype, large digital reunions, etc.

What it takes to organise a successful online meeting

With more than 1,000 webinars and online conferences in experience behind him, Kamberi shared some insights into the practicalities of running a smooth meeting in an online environment. Kamberi stressed that online conferencing is not solely about the technology. While online tools have to work, other factors, namely preparation and the organisation of the event, are far more important for the success of the event. In that context, the choice of the technology depends on a number of elements, including the type of event being organised, as well as the users’ needs and experience. In fact, experience allows organisers of online meetings to identify potential glitches and best prepare for unpredictable situations, explaining why alertness is key. Kamberi added that today, most platforms are offered free of charge and they provide the users with more or less the same features. To that point, combine different platforms according to users’ needs and have a plan B (an alternative platform in case something goes wrong)

Inclusion is more than just accessibility

Speaking on e-participation (i.e.inclusion of those who are not able to attend onsite events), Maciel pointed out that certain aspects of face-to-face meetings such as empathy, networking, and human interaction are difficult to reproduce in an online setting. Planning ahead is therefore crucial to ensuring that remote participation provides value to participants. E-participation hubs created during the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) were given as an example of successful inclusion initiatives that not only allow individuals to assist in a meeting, but also engage actively by conversing with other participants and sharing their local and regional concerns. Maciel noted that in many cases communities were created around these hubs.

Know your audience

For meetings to succeed in developing countries, Maciel underscored that organisers need to know their audience. They need to be aware of their Internet capacities, language preferences, discussion priorities, and other factors. Solutions for better inclusion include: streaming meetings via YouTube, captioning for persons with disabilities, and more overall attentiveness to the human aspect, especially at a time when we have a tendency to overlook this and focus more on the technology being used.

What are the next steps?

This web discussion is the first in a series of online events that will be held. As of 30 March 2020, Diplo will also be offering a just-in-time online course entitled ‘Online meetings for Diplomacy and Global Governance’. You can find more information about the online course here. For updates on Conference Tech Lab, please subscribe to our community.

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